Vermont’s Other Playground

A large measure of Vermont’s quality of life proceeds from the fortunate contiguity of its mountains, valleys, and Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain is considered the most historic body of water in North America. It was a key strategic location for troops in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Over the years, it has provided sustenance both winter and summer for trade and recreation.

The lake is named for Samuel de Champlain, who, in 1609, was the first European to explore it. A documentary on its history by Caro Thompson, Champlain: The Lake Between, is available from Vermont Public Television: or (800) 866-1666.


  • According to the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, the lake provides some of the best fishing and the greatest variety of freshwater fish in the Northeast.
  • A survey the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducts every five years reports that anglers spent nearly $62 million in Vermont during 2006. Vermonters — 70,000 of them, or 14% of the population — spend time fishing.
  • Lake Champlain International Inc. organizes several fishing tournaments a year: the LCI Father’s Day Derby; an all-season tournament running from May through September; a Little Anglers Derby in June; and the Lake Champlain Bass Open in September.; 879-3466.
  • There’s a fine for fishing without a license if you’re age 15 or older. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department sells them online or through authorized agents — resident, $22; nonresident, $45. Check the website for other types and prices: licenses.cfm.
  • Ice fishing, a popular winter pursuit, begins with the onset of safe ice. The average date is Feb. 12 for the broad lake; shallower bays freeze earlier. By law, ice-fishing shanties must be removed from the ice before the ice becomes unsafe or loses its ability to support the shanty, or before the last Sunday in March at the latest.
  • Ice fishermen and recreation seekers sometimes drive their cars or trucks onto the frozen lake. Under state law, a frozen lake counts as a public highway. The police keep watch. Drivers going over 50 miles per hour or driving recklessly can be ticketed or even arrested. So can driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Almost every year, at least one vehicle plunges through the ice. Only the very lucky survive.


  • The Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve, established by Vermont and New York, provides public access for divers to some of the lake’s historic shipwrecks. Registration is required for every dive. Contact the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum for information.; 475-2022.


  • The minimum age for operating a boat in Vermont is 12. Operators of personal watercraft (such as Jet Skis) must be 16. In New York, the minimum age for both is 10, with certificate. Without it, the minimum age in New York for operators of personal watercraft is 24.
  • Vermont requires safety education (and a safe-boating certificate) for boat operators born after 1974 who are 10 years of age or older, but a license is not required to operate a boat. The Vermont State Police offer the course, which can be taken online: Vermont registers approximately 40,000 boats a year through the department of motor vehicles. Vessels must be registered.
  • The noise of your boat’s engine may not exceed 82 decibels at 50 feet.
  • Water skiing is prohibited from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise. Skiers must wear a personal flotation device.
  • Vermont does not permit self-propelled skis.

Facts About Lake Champlain

  • The lake is 120 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest point. It flows north from Whitehall, N.Y., to the Richelieu River in Quebec and eventually to the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Ocean.
  • It is divided into five distinct areas, each with its own physical and chemical characteristics and water quality. They are the South Lake, the Main (or Broad) Lake, Malletts Bay, the Inland Sea, and Missisquoi Bay.
  • The lake’s basin (or watershed or drainage area) covers 8,234 square miles, 56% of which lies in Vermont, with 37% in New York, and 7% in the Province of Quebec.
  • About 571,000 people live in the Lake Champlain basin. About 68% live in Vermont, 27% in New York, and 5% in Quebec.
  • Tributaries that drain the basin contribute over 90% of the water that enters the lake. Major tributaries in Vermont are: the Missisquoi, Lamoille, Winooski, and LaPlatte rivers and Otter Creek; in New York: the Great Chazy, Saranac, Ausable, and Bosquet rivers.
  • Approximately 200,000 people, or about a third of the basin’s residents, depend on the lake for drinking water; about 4,150 draw water directly from the lake for individual use.
  • There are more than 40 marinas around the lake.
  • The lake’s shoreline is 587 miles long. It has 435 square miles of surface water and an average depth of 64 feet; 400 feet at its deepest.
  • More than 70 islands dot the lake.
  • The mean annual water level is 95.5 feet above sea level.
  • There are about 54 public or commercial beaches and 10 private beaches on the lake’s shores.

Source: The Lake Champlain Basin Program.


Environmental Issues

Water quality and invasive species are the environmental concerns most often cited by people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the lake.

Water quality has improved in the last 20 years as a result of required industrial waste treatment and a large investment of state, federal, municipal, and private funds for sewage treatment facilities. Concerns remain, however, over pollution from urban and agricultural areas, particularly phosphorus from farm fertilizer runoff and mercury poisoning via acid rain.

High phosphorus levels have produced algal blooms in parts of the lake, and toxic substances such as PCBs and mercury have resulted in fish consumption advisories for some fish. Other issues include the impact to fish and wildlife from nuisance non-native aquatic species and wetland loss.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program has an ongoing Opportunities for Action management plan. Details can be found at the organization’s website,